What Is The Flower Of The Day Of The Dead Mexican Folk Art From Oaxacan Artist Families, by Arden Aibel Rothstein and Anya Leah Rothstein

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Mexican Folk Art From Oaxacan Artist Families, by Arden Aibel Rothstein and Anya Leah Rothstein

Fans of folk art in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca will already be familiar with Arden Aibel Rothstein and Anya Leah Rothstein’s Mexican Folk Art From Oaxacan Artist Families (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2007). However, it was surprising to learn that some people interested in the crafts of the central valleys of Oaxaca are not even aware of this seminal work – especially since it was first published in 2002.

The 2007 edition of Mexican Folk Art is a comprehensive compilation and detailed examination of every major type of contemporary Oaxacan folk art, laid out in a refreshingly simple format. The book is divided into ten chapters, each dedicated to a different medium: ceramics, textiles, woodcarving, metalwork (including tin work, cutlery and knives), miniatures and toys, jewellery, candles, baskets and dried flower crafts, with the final chapter dedicated to the Day of the Dead.

Generally, each chapter begins with a broad description of the art form, including significant variations within it. In the Ceramics chapter, for example, the divisions are Terra Cotta, Green Glazed, Multicolored Glazed, Black (barro negro) and Painted Red. Often a village in the central valleys of Oaxaca is known for producing a certain type of folk art. Accordingly, in some cases the chapter then describes a particular pueblo, giving the reader additional context. We find descriptions of, among others, the ceramic cities of Atzompa, San Bartolo Coyotepec, and Ocotlán.

Where a family is known for particular innovation or dexterity in creating a particular craft, family history follows. Then individual artisans were highlighted. For the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec we find descriptions of the De Nieto Castillo family, of which the famous Dona Rosa was a member, together with biographies of her son Don Valente Nieto Real and members of his clan; and the family of Pedro Martinez with biographies of the acclaimed Carlomagno Pedro Martinez and his relatives.

In all, Mexican Folk Art features the works of 100 artists from 50 families living in Oaxaca or one of 13 nearby towns and villages. In most cases, we get information about the personality, worldview and motivation of each individual carver, weaver or potter, as well as a biographical sketch, enhanced by the inclusion of a direct quote. In this way, the reader gets an insight into the inspiration of each craftsman. In many cases, the authors also include a section on the techniques used by the artist, which includes sourcing raw materials such as wool from the Mixteca region of the state to make rugs and wall hangings, or clay from other regions of the state to change the tone and texture of the sculptures; and processing methods including the extraction of natural dyes from fruits, plants, soil and the cochineal insect.

With its glossy front cover and approximately 700 photographs, Mexican Folk Art can rightly be called a coffee table book. But it is much more. The photographs themselves bring the book and the artists to life: Apolinar Aguilar from Ocotlan, forges a red-hot piece of recycled metal into an artistic hunting knife; an exhibition of provocatively painted clay ladies of the night made by his cousin Julian, son of the famous Guillermina Aguilar; Jacobo Angeles of San Martín Tilcajeta carves a figure from the wood of the copal tree, or stands with his wife Maria and their family, each proudly displaying an exquisitely painted alebrije; Teotitlan del Valle weaver Isaac Vasquez works on his loom creating wallpaper, a pattern inspired by pre-Hispanic pictographs; and fine examples of multicolored highly detailed hand embroidery from San Antonino, such as the wedding dress yoke and sleeves.

This gem should easily appeal to any reader with an interest or background in anthropology, history, or geography. The importance and influence of the autochthonous Zapotec origin and its present-day cultural manifestations shine through many ethnographic reports. The genealogies (called family trees) that form one of the appendices are detailed and date back as far as the 19th century. They help the reader better understand the historical and generational context of craft development in Oaxaca.

To help those interested in exploring the craft villages and visiting the artists on their own, without the help of an Oaxaca tour guide, throughout the book is an address and any additional contact information available for each artist, such as phone number and email. Another appendix consists of a series of easy-to-read maps of the pueblo, detailing the exact location of each featured artist, further facilitating contact.

Authors Arden and Anya Rothstein correctly caution that their presentation of artists represents a “sampling” of what is available to those interested in exploring Oaxaca’s hinterland. They actually encourage you to get out there and do your own research, finding the next folk artist who might rise to the international stage. They are careful to qualify that their inclusions are based on which artisans are the most innovative, or who produce work that is of a particularly high caliber according to certain criteria. The Rothsteins understand that the work of any innovator of an entire class of folk art, and those who produce a quality far above the rest, is often beyond the financial reach of many. Therefore, they represent additional artists whose works are more accessible, but also of exceptional quality.

Folk art collectors often need a reminder that buying a piece by a recognized name does not necessarily mean that the product is the best, in terms of color or patina, form, design or the imagery it evokes, and that what appears to be fancy is. of the majority, or so-called experts, may not be your cup of tea. Accordingly, “honorary recognition” was awarded to the creators of certain crafts whose works were not shown (under the title, for example, “Additional woodcarvers in Arrazola”). It is a clear suggestion that readers should go out there and do their research, and make their own decisions and choices based on personal preference.

Is it worth buying the second edition if you already have the first? Definitely consider it if you haven’t already gotten involved in appreciating and collecting Oaxacan folk art by exploring the central valleys. While the 2002 volume boasted 500 photographs and featured 87 artists within 44 families, the latest publication, as noted earlier, expanded to 700, 100, and 50 respectively. Some of the artisans only mentioned in the previous volume titled ” Additionally,” they were elevated to “featured artists,” with their works and stories duly recorded. And in some cases where families have grown and the demographics of the pueblo have changed, the authors have appropriately noted the changes. It is wise, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, that the US dollar “Price Guide” is omitted from this new volume, as more than anything else it is likely to lead to confusion among buyers, with the potential to place barriers between artists and potential buyers. As between the Mexican and US economies, there are so many variables and market conditions at play, it is best to allow the seller/builder and buyer to make their own judgment respecting the build value.

Mexican Folk Art is a well-researched, exhaustive study of all the major types of contemporary Oaxacan folk art and their creators, past and present. Don’t let its appearance as “another fancy coffee table book” fool you. It achieves what it sets out to do and then some. It should be seen as a guide, not a bible. If we are ever blessed with a third edition, perhaps the publisher will think it advisable to put the duplicate maps of the pueblo in a special pocket … it would be a shame to carry such a wonderful work unduly if you take it out from village to village.

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